Pro Stock racer Tanner Gray became the youngest NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world champion by qualifying Saturday at the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
During his championship season the 19-year-old Gray notched seven victories including his first career win at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. In the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, Gray cemented his first crown with two wins and maintained the points lead throughout the entire playoffs.
“It has been a heck of a year,” Gray stated. “It started out pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure it would end up here. About midseason we were able to find something, and everything seemed like it started clicking from there. We did so much testing at the beginning of the season and it really paid off. It was like a light flipped and everything started coming together. We had a strong running going there for a little bit and came into the Countdown and executed on race day really well.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the final race of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
Pritchett remained atop of the Top Fuel category for all four qualifying sessions in her Mopar Dodge dragster at her hometown race. Her final qualifying run of 3.631 seconds at 332.84 mph secured her fourth No. 1 qualifier of the season and 11th of her career. Pritchett will square off against Bill Litton Sunday morning as she seeks to secure her third win of the season.
“The car is finally communicating in a proper way,” Pritchett said. “We found out our window is a lot bigger for making these fast passes. I’m most excited for [crew chief] Todd Okuhara because he finally has his race car back. For the history that has been laid on this track and for us to chase putting down our own history makes me feel like our team is on our way.”
Top Fuel world champion Steve Torrence is second with his pass of 3.661s at 330.96 mph in his Capco Contractors/Torrence Racing dragster and 2017 world champion Brittany Force is third overall.
Don Schumacher Racing swept the top three qualifying positions in Funny Car as Capps powered his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T to the top of the class with his fourth qualifying pass of 3.848s at 331.53 mph. Teammates Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. were second and third, respectively.
“The fans are going to be in for unbelievable racing tomorrow,” Capps stated. “It will be a nice warm Southern California day but it is going to be good track conditions and it won’t be messy or greasy. I can’t think of a better place to race.”
Capps will see Ray Martin in the first round of eliminations. Beckman’s speed of 330.96 mph at 3.867s in his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger R/T surpassed Johnson Jr.’s 326.40 mph at 3.867s during their side-by-side fourth qualifying run. Points leader J.R. Todd is qualified fourth and defending world champion and championship contender Robert Hight follows in fifth.
Pro Stock veteran Coughlin Jr. lock in his sixth No. 1 qualifier of the season in his JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro with his final qualifying pass of 6.510s at 211.49 mph. He will face off against Kenny Delco during the first round of eliminations as he chases his fourth win of the season.
“[Crew chief] Rickie Jones was going for it,” Coughlin Jr. stated. “From the time I let the clutch out this thing was just singing. It was singing through every one of the four gear changes and fifth gear was great and just hummed it down through there. I could tell by the tone on his voice on the radio that not only did we run well but kept the No. 1 qualifier.”
Jason Line moved up to the No. 2 spot during the final round of qualifying with his run of 6.529s at 212.06 mph in his Summit Racing Chevrolet Equipment and will see Vincent Nobile for the first round of eliminations. Erica Enders rounds out to the top three for qualifying and will start eliminations against Deric Kramer.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Matt Smith, the points leader, secured his fifth No. 1 qualifier of the season, 31st of his career and second during the Countdown to the Championship by racing his Elite Motorsports DENSO Auto Parts EBR to a 6.754 at 201.10.
“Our Q3 run was a phenomenal pass,” Smith said. “We did 60-foot well like we did in Q1 and Q2 but as everybody sees we have a real good tune-up, we have a lot of power, and the 201.10 is pretty hateful out here. We ran big speed at eighth mile, changed some gear ratios and made a nice pass.”
M. Smith will open eliminations against his wife, Angie Smith. Hector Arana Jr. is qualified second after a 6.781s at 197.57 mph on his Lucas Oil Racing TV EBR and he’ll line up against Freddie Camarena. Defending world champion Eddie Krawiec is in qualified third and in contention for his fifth world championship.
Eliminations begin at 11 a.m. at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals.